World of Warcraft shook up the MMO space back in 2004, but a few years before, a small number of Blizzard Entertainment employees broke off to form Arena Net. Their first title, Guild Wars, released a few months after World of Warcraft with some unique ideas injected into what had largely become the standard format for world structures and monetary subscriptions in MMOs. Now the developers have a sequel nearing completion, and while Guild Wars 2 doesn't aim to reinvent the wheel, there are a number of changes to the core design governing most MMOs that might even push the genre as a whole in some great new directions.
For reference, these impressions are based on the recent open beta weekend. I tried to go broad and sample as many of the starting areas, classes and gameplay types as I could. My highest level character, a thief, only ended up around level 10 when the beta ended. Obviously being a beta and a stress event certain technical issues were to be expected, and Guild Wars 2 being a rich and detailed MMO I wasn't able to experience every nuance of the game.
Guild Wars 2 takes place approximately 200 years after events in the original game and its expansions. The world hasn't exactly improved, many of the races facing issues with great elder dragons awakening and wreaking havoc over the lands; the perfect environment for up-and-coming heroes to make a name for themselves. Players will get to select from five races and eight professions at release. These run your standard fantasy gamut of humans to norn (think barbarians or Cimmerians) and warriors to rangers, but there are plenty of exotic and unique elements like the illusion-based Mesmer profession or bestial Charr race, who were originally antagonists in the first game. You'll also make a number of choices that further flesh out your character beyond simply race and class. These choices will affect things like your starting equipment and your personal quest story.
The part I enjoyed most during my time with Guild Wars 2 was how it encourages players to actually work together, even outside of typical party mechanics. There is no monster tagging where the first person to attack a NPC gets all the loot and experience for killing it, a feature most MMOs adhere to. Instead, everyone who helped defeat a monster gets rewarded with experience and the chance for items, which encourages players to help each other even if you're not formally grouped with them. This also ties into questing. Rather than specific goals like "Bring me 10 wolf pelts," the world questing in Guild Wars 2 has broader area based goals. You might be tasked with assisting a local farmer, but you can help her out in a number of different ways. Defeating bandits, recovering supplies or simply tracking down her lost livestock are all actions that will contribute towards completing the quest. This means that you can spend more time playing and completing your goals with the help of others and less time waiting for that last wolf to respawn.
Another method for breaking up the norm for MMO questing is the inclusion of events. The game world is peppered with these mini-quests that often tie-in with the larger area based quests. You might be clearing out spiders from an orchard when a particularly large one spawns or perhaps you'll be asked to escort a soldier past waves of centaur to raid an armory in the middle of a larger conflict. These events will dynamically scale with the number of players in the area so they always have just the right feeling of difficulty regardless if 5 or 25 people are there. This is actually where the developers plan to extend a portion of their ongoing content, and the specifics of where and when won't always be announced. So down the line as you are rolling alternate characters you might be completing the same quests, but you'll still be discovering new things to see and do along the way.